The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s latest effort, has much to like. The cinematography is very strong. The focus on the legal norms of the day, including the loophole of sorts exploited to arrive at the duel itself, is highly interesting. The action scenes are excellent. In particular, the titular duel is so well-choreographed that I actually wasn’t entirely sure who was going to win at one point.
The problem was that, by that time, I barely cared.
The Last Duel has a structure that will be familiar to anyone who grew up with 1980s television.
The story comes in three “chapters,” each of which represent the respective point of view of the three main characters, played by Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer—in that order. Now, as anyone who experienced that 80s TV trope can tell you, the whole point of this form of storytelling is to show that each person has a slightly different perspective on the same events (and also to give a break to writers who had to crank out 22 episodes’ worth of “WHATCHOOTALKINBOUTWILLIS?” jokes).
This technique can be used to highlight the more humorous personality traits of the characters, each of whom normally makes himself the singular hero of the same story. In terms of drama—and this is key—it can be used to show nuanced versions of the same event to get the audience to try to decide what objective reality might be.
Often, that reality can mean some mid-point among all of the versions. Or, the creator might leave it to the audience to debate and decide which is the actual “correct” story is, perhaps picking up on consistent threads in the various versions to separate fact from embellishment. This can be a captivating storytelling device when used correctly.
That isn’t what happens in The Last Duel.